Names of Plants, Food, and Drinks Formed by Folk Etymology

By Mark Nichol - 3 minute read

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This post lists words for plants, food, and drinks, as well as some terms associated with drinks, derived from words in other languages as a result of folk etymology, a process by which speakers adopt the foreign terms after revising them by using existing elements from their native language.

artichoke: The name of the vegetable stems ultimately from the Arabic word al-khurshūf by way of the Spanish term alcarchofa and the Italian term arcicioffo (rendered articiocco in an Italian dialect), with the English form likely influenced by choke.
avocado: The native word for this New World fruit is ahuacatl, which was rendered into Spanish as aguacate, which in turn came to be spelled and pronounced like a now-obsolete Spanish word meaning “lawyer.” (Note the resemblance to advocate.) That word was then adopted into English.
burger: This word is a shortening of hamburger, which originally was styled as Hamburger to denote a resident of Hamburg, Germany, or various things originating there. The connection to Hamburg is obscure, but a patty of ground meat was called a hamburg steak during the late nineteenth century and later, when paired with a bun, a hamburger sandwich, then simply a hamburger. After cheeseburger was coined, hamburger was often shortened to burger.
cocktail: This term for a mixed alcoholic drink or, by extension, various mixtures of substances (as in “fruit cocktail”) has an uncertain origin, but it may derive from the French term coquetier (meaning “egg cup”), from the use of such containers to serve mixed drinks in the late eighteenth century.
demijohn: Several hundred years ago, a large, round bottle wrapped in wicker was in French termed a damejeanne (meaning “Lady Jane,” perhaps from its anthropomorphic appearance). Nearly a century later, an adaptation of the term was adopted into English.
mandrake: Originally, in Greek, mandragoras, the term for a plant whose root has narcotic qualities passed into English through Latin. Because of the resemblance of the middle of the word to dragon, the term was adapted by folk etymology to end with drake, an English variation of dragon.
mangrove: The Spanish word for this tropical coastal tree is mangue (likely adapted from a Caribbean language), and in Portuguese it is called mangle. Adopted into Middle English as mangrow, it evolved to its current form influenced by grove, meaning “a stand of trees.”
mistletoe: Mistel, of uncertain origin, was the name of this shrub that grows on trees and is associated with Christmas (originally, with fertility, hence the custom of kissing under a sprig of the plant around the time of the holiday); in Old English, it was called misteltān (“mistel twig”), and the fading emphasis on the final syllable resulted in the current spelling.
mushroom: The name for various species of fungus is derived from the Latin term mussirionem by way of the Old French word meisseron and its Anglo-French variation, musherun.
pumpkin: The name of the gourd was derived from the Greek word pepon, meaning “melon”; the second syllable of the Middle English descendant pompone (also spelled pumpion) was altered to the diminutive syllable -kin.
saltcellar: A bowl or other container for salt was in Old French called a salier; this term, transformed by folk etymology into cellar, was redundantly attached to the English word salt to describe such an object.
serviceberry: This edible berry acquired its name from the resemblance of the fruit to that of the genus Sorbus, some species of which are called service trees; service is derived from the Latin genus name and is unrelated to serve. (The alternative names juneberry and shadberry derive from the fact that the berries ripen in June, at about the same time as shad proliferate in creeks in New England.)
sparrowgrass: Asparagus, borrowed directly from the Latin version of asparagos, the Greek word for an edible plant, was altered by folk etymology to sparrowgrass.
Welsh rabbit: The name given to melted cheese on toast or a dish with melted cheese and bread was originally a jocular reference, at the expense of the Welsh people, to cheese as a poor person’s substitute for rabbit meat, a delicacy; “Welsh rarebit” is a variant.
witch hazel: The first word in the name of the tree derives from the Old English word wice, meaning “pliable”; the use of witch hazel twigs as divining rods may have prompted the alteration of the name.
wormwood: The alteration of the Old English word wermod, denoting the wormwood plant, the aromatic herb harvested from it, and its derivative, absinthe, perhaps stemmed from the bitter aftertaste of the liquor. Vermouth comes from the German equivalent, Wermuth; that liquor was originally flavored with the herb.


10 Responses to “Names of Plants, Food, and Drinks Formed by Folk Etymology”

  • D.A.W.

    There is another kind of ancient folk remedy that has developed into a modern medicine: deadly nightshade. This plant gives us belladonna.

  • D.A.W.

    We will use a demitasse to drink a demijohn of booze very slowly.

  • TheBluebird11

    Wow…who’d a thunk! Those are some very convoluted etymologies! Agree with GretchenJoanna; thanks! 🙂

  • Dale A. Wood

    More about Mandrake the Magician:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandrake_the_Magician
    This one does mention that sometimes Mandrake and his associates fought against extraterrestrials sometimes.

  • Dale A. Wood

    More about mandrake and its resemblance to a human being: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandrake

  • D.A.W.

    Testing because of malfunctions here.

  • D.A.W.

    There is another kind of a plant that bears a resemblance to human parts (the fingers), and it is a potent natural medication, too: digitalis. See this article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digitalis
    Furthermore, there is an even older name for it that goes back to Old English: foxglove.
    Digitalis has been used in folk medicine for over 400 years, and it does have some genuine benefits. It does regulate the heart rhythm, and it promotes the ejection of blood from the heart in cases of congestive heart failure. Thus, back when only noblemen could afford the attention of doctors, it was beneficial to (old and fat) noblemen (and women) suffering from heart disease.

  • D.A.W.

    Decades ago (during the 1960s), I was an avid reader of a comic strip that came in a weekly newspaper. It was called “Mandrake the Magician”. Surely, Mandrake was a Magician, but this comic strip wrapped in a lot of science fiction, too. There was a series of episodes that caught my attention and memory. The Earth was being visited by aliens who came in spaceships One Mile Long! (The rest of the story has escaped me.)
    That kind of a spaceship came along again in 1968 in the extremely LONG spaceship “Discovery One” in the film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
    Years later, someone came up with the same image in the film “Alien”. Early in it, there are images of the gigantic spaceship “Nostromo”. Some of the movie reviewers pointed out that this was a flash-forward from “2001”.

  • D.A.W.

    I cannot verify this one from having directly seen the stuff, but I have been told that the roots of the plant
    “mandrake” often form the image of a man! Hence, the “man” part. I didn’t know anything about “drake” being a version of “dragon”, but that makes sense, too. Since the stuff is a narcotic, we can visualize it as “biting” the human being.

  • GretchenJoanna

    What a fun list to have! Thank you!

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